Vermont’s biggest single recreational draw these days is skiing, which directly adds more than one billion and well over 10,000 jobs to the Vermont economy. But despite its current impact, skiing’s Vermont beginnings were humble.
Scandinavian students brought their skis to Dartmouth, and in 1912 three Swedish families settled in Stowe. The first recorded ascent of Mount Mansfield on skis took place two years later, in 1914. Young Vermonters immediately adopted the sport, bought skis or made them, and began clambering up Vermont’s snow covered mountains in the winter so they could ski back down.
At first a rugged form of exercise that appealed mostly to the young and super-fit, skiing was popularized in Vermont in the 1930s and 40s by pioneers like Bromely Mountain’s Fred Pabst, Stowe’s Sepp Ruschp, and Perry Merrill, who as state commissioner of Forests and Parks, promoted skiing and used crews of the Civilian Conservation Corps to cut some of the state’s first ski trails.
However, modern-day, lift-assisted skiing wasn’t born in Stowe or Stratton or Manchester; it began on farmer Clinton Gilbert’s hillside cow pasture just north of Woodstock. It was there in 1934 that a Model T Ford engine was hooked up to some pulleys and a rope to become the first ski tow in the United States.
The next year, there was a tow in operation at Bunny Bertram’s Suicide Six ski area nearby, and soon there were new ski trails and ski tows cropping up all over New England. In 1940, Mount Mansfield installed the state’s first chair lift.
Skiing was expanding dramatically, and the State of Vermont encouraged that expansion by building access roads and clearing away legal and procedural roadblocks. Killington, Mount Snow, Sugarbush, and other major resorts were created in the major ski expansion of the 1950s and 60s.
As the sport grew, it rediscovered some of its roots. Cross-country skiing – and more recently back-country ski mountaineering – have both returned. Vermont’s first cross-country ski touring center – no lifts but lots of trails – was opened in 1967 at Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. Today there are more than 30 others, in addition to nearly 20 downhill areas and resorts.
Millions of dollars pumped into any place will transform it, and skiing has transformed Vermont. Not every aspect of that change has been an unalloyed benefit – mountainside developments have caused environmental problems and the influx of well-to-do out-of-staters has left some Vermonters feeling displaced in their native state.
But Vermont’s firm body of environmental law has kept the skiing revolution under control, even as the sport has become a part of our state persona. In fact, it is hard to imagine today’s Vermont without skiing, and equally hard to comprehend the depth of the social and economic revolution spearheaded in these Green Mountains by an esoteric sport that 100 years ago was hardly known outside Scandinavia.